Tales of an Eclectic Collector

An article by guest writer Wong Hong Sze. Refer to “About the Writer” at the end of the post.

I have always been interested in collecting. There is difference between collecting and hoarding. Hoarding is indiscriminate amassing without a focus. Collecting is a discipline with focus. It is the art of acquiring with discernment.

When I was a schoolboy, I learned the art of collecting spiders. Unlike many of my friends who spent days in the bush picking them up at random, I remember spending hours studying the type, size and characteristics of specimens and the type of vegetation they thrive in. Only then did I embark on my collecting adventure. I did not own many, but they were of good fighting quality. My friends would then buy one or two from me for 5 cents each. This was when I discovered collecting has an investment value.

My interest in beautiful objects of art was kindled by my late father. He collected Chinese Ming and Qing porcelain vases, water pots, and wrist rests, collectibles for the scholar’s writing desk. I used to admire (and still do) the potter’s ability to mould, decorate and fire such fine kaolin to produce top quality porcelain. The decoration was never busy. A single sprig of prunus delicately painted and under-glazed onto a vase no taller than 10 cm was a good example.

So over the years, I developed a taste for small size collectibles, having lived amongst them since childhood. But I did not venture out to purchase on my own until a small revelation transformed my passive interest into active pursuit.

During my first month of employment after graduation, I chanced across an article on Chinese snuff bottles in an early edition of “Arts of Asia”, a tastefully illustrated arts magazine.

I was simply astounded by the beauty and exquisite crafting of these tiny bottles. I soon bought then the only English book on the subject – “Chinese Snuff Bottles – The Adventures & Studies of a Collector”, by the late Lilla Perry.

From Lilla, I learned that snuff was grounded tobacco imported by Europeans into China during the early Qing dynasty in the 17th C. In Europe, snuff was consumed by sniffing a small quantity and inhaled into each nostril thereby producing a few loud sneezes. It was supposed to clear the nostril passage ways and result in a sense of well being, if not aphrodisiac sensations. It was used by the gentry during the courts of Louis XIV (1643-1715) and elsewhere and was considered fashionable by men and women to carry a snuff box in their pockets.

When snuff was introduced into China to the Kangxi court (1662-1722) by Jesuits, it was soon realized that box containers were not practical as the mandarin robe did not have pockets. Instead, it was ideal to store snuff into small bottles (no more than 5 cm high) wherein the user was able to tuck it into the long sleeves of his robe.

These small bottles soon caught on not only in the Chinese court but in business circles where merchants presented them as gifts and bribes. They soon became a collector’s item and hence various forms of material were used to make them. These included glass, quartz, jade, silver, hornbill, porcelain, sharkskin, and other organic and non organic material. Intricate decorations were also employed – carving, pasting, and later a technique known as inside painted, where a painting was executed inside a glass bottle.

I vividly remember my first acquisition. It was bought at a local antiques shop known as “Moon Gate”. It was a late 19th C glass overlay bottle with intricate carving of figures toasting each other. Almost half of my first month’ salary went to acquiring this beauty and I have kept it to this day. It was probably a good investment as these beauties would have appreciated at least 15-20 times since then.

My first snuff bottle

Through the years, I acquired other bottles. Another favourite is this porcelain carved bottle with a green jade tablet (likely taken from a Mandarin’s hat) attached into the middle. The bottle was acquired in London and would have been dated circa 1870. I take it out even now to admire it.

There were a few cardinal rules about collecting snuff bottles (which also apply to other forms of collecting) which I adhere to closely. First, the bottle has to be in mint or near mint condition. Don’t risk the temptation to purchase bottles which have cracks or defaced decorations, no matter how well crafted. Second, make sure it is of the age period attributed. There are countless modern bottles attributed to the Qing dynasty in today’s market. Nowadays I attest to the 90-10 rule. Assume 90% in today’s market are fakes to begin with. The challenge is to search out the 10%. Third, buy the best you can afford. It is more satisfying to resist the temptation of amassing poor quality pieces when you can live with just one of the best in its class. At present, I have only one or at most two bottles from each type of material. Fourth, buy pieces which appeal for its artistic value to you personally and not only for investment value. After all you will have to live with them on a daily basis!

Another favourite of mine is this inside painted bottle of an opera actor. It is dated 1911 and signed Ma Shao-Hsuan. Ma was one of the first artist to paint portraits. The technique was to paint in reverse using a small pointed brush inserted into the mouth of the bottle. It is micro painting in its highest form! There are now thousands of bottles attributed to Ma but most are contemporary fakes. I acquired this bottle in 1965 from a reputable dealer in Hong Kong.

Front

Back

In the mid 1990s my family and I lived in London for 2 years on a cross posting. London is often considered the Mecca of the antiques and fine market. Indeed so. In almost every nook and corner was an antique shop of sorts. Some dealing in 17th C European paintings, some in early 20th C art deco collectibles and others in heirloom bric bracs. Saturday mornings would catch us trotting over to Portobello Market to browse at the vast quantities of antiques but seldom to buy. The sheer crowd from across the globe was sufficient to satisfy as a study of cross cultural interest and tastes. A couple from France, for example, would be hunting for Russian orthodox icons. A single woman from Tokyo would be looking for pre World War Two diaries printed by His Majesty’s Stationers. It was there that I was introduced to another area of collecting – 18th C English drinking glasses!

I was simply fascinated by the various shapes, designs, and sizes, of what we know as a drinking glass. As usual, I read up on the subject, the most illustrated and readable book being “An Illustrated Guide to Eighteenth Century Drinking Glass” by L.M. Bickerton.

From it, I learned the virtual monopoly in glass making held by Venice was broken in the late 16th C when England produced some very fine ale mugs and wine goblets. The early English glasses were heavy as they were mixed with lead which acted as a ballast to prevent the contents from spilling. A typical glass would be made in three pieces – the bowl (which holds the liquid), the stem and the foot.

As time passed, the British Government passed an Excise Tax on the lead content and from the late 17th C onwards, glasses were lighter, but with the growth of the industry, more intricate designs and shapes were added.

On reflection, collecting English drinking glasses and Chinese snuff bottles, has its parallels. Both function as containers. Both have a body, a stem (in the case of snuff bottles a stopper) and a foot. My collection of bottles and glasses is also quite parallel in period – the Qinlong period onwards in China and the Georgian period onwards in England). There is however one very perceptible difference. Chinese snuff bottles were made from a myriad of materials whereas English glasses were just forms of silica.

Nevertheless, drinking glasses (like snuff bottles) were also classified according to form, shape and decoration.. There were mugs, drams (whisky glasses), goblets, balusters etc. Stems came in various shapes – moulded pedestal stem, straight stem, air twist stem, colour stem, and incised twist stem. The decoration is often an art in itself – from common engraving to engraving in commemoration of an event eg Royal Coronation; or a baby’s christening.

One of my early acquisitions is a most interesting ladies cocktail glass which has an opague twist stem engraved with a bird in flight. The engraving is actually a secret code. The bird signifies the return of Bonnie Prince Charles from exile to claim the English throne. Owners of these glasses were invariably supporters of the Prince! I bought this from a collector in Bath.

Some decorations were produced to represent a society or commercial enterprise. I have a dram (whisky drinking glass) which represented a particular Masonic Lodge in Scotland. It was engraved “Lodge of Harmony No 559”. The compass and slide rule emblem is clearly visible. A local Masonic friend helped me trace the Lodge to one which existed in Dunedin Scotland circa 1768.

In the course of my work overseas, I occasionally stayed over the weekend to browse the local flea market and antique shops. The anticipation was the optimistic prospect one might stumble onto an unexpected gem. Most times, the results were disappointing but all it took was one unexpected find to fuel the enthusiasm once more. I visited an antique shop in Mumbai in 2002 to discover a treasure trove! Scattered around the display cabinets were finely blown 19th C English drinking glasses. Some were cocktail glasses, some were after dinner liquour stem glasses; some were brandy tumblers. All bore an identical. engraved emblem – the royal insignia of the Maharaja of Rajustan. The dealer informed me the entire dinner set collection was commissioned to be sold in his shop but sensing he would find it difficult to sell it as a set, he was willing to sell single pieces. I picked up three glasses of different shapes, the most interesting being the one illustrated below.

These last two years, I have embarked on yet another collecting adventure – antique pocket watches, but a discourse of this newly found joy will run well beyond the space permitted for this article.

So for me, collecting is a continuous journey. There are always new areas to explore. But delving into a new subject to collect does not devalue the previous subjects. I still cherish my snuff bottles and English drinking glasses. Often, it is not the collectibles that one cherishes but tales of how they were acquired and the interesting types of people one meets in the trial of acquisition which is etched in memory.

About the Writer

  • He has the good fortune of visiting many interesting places and meeting extraordinary people in his 35 year career as a HR director.
  • He has also participated in arts forums as speaker and has contributed to events organized by auction houses such as Sothebys.
  • He is interested in many forms of the arts and can be found frequently attending concerts at the Esplanade and Young Siew Toh Music Conservatory.
  • He is a council member of the SE Asia Ceramics Society and the China Society.
  • He is an unabashed lover of all good things, notably food and wine.

5 thoughts on “Tales of an Eclectic Collector

  1. Dear Hong Sze,

    Thanks for the article. Although we don’t all collect the same things, your article is both interesting and very personal. Moreover for me, it’s also very nostalgic because we share the same experience of living in London and combing Portobellow Street on Saturday mornings.

    Peter

    • Dear Peter
      Very nice to hear from you. I remember you used to collect Chinese blue and white porcelain. You must have an enviable collection by now and perhaps would like to share your collecting experiences on this blog.
      Do keep in touch.
      Best regards
      Hong Sze

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